Keith Harmon, director of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC, remembers the day in 2004 when he met a high school senior named Kizzmekia Corbett.
Corbett was just taking an early step en route to a fascinating place – the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, where she leads the team that is developing the coronavirus vaccine.
Harmon, who was among Corbett’s advisers in the Meyerhoff Program, was interested that Corbett already had research experience from her high school days in North Carolina.
“She was quite passionate and energetic,” he said, “and already had an interest in disease control and health in populations.”
Corbett, a 2008 UMBC graduate who double-majored in sociology and biology, was also in the university’s NIH Undergraduate Scholars Program. She continued along her path, became, Dr. Corbett, and now serves NIH as senior research fellow/scientific lead on the coronavirus vaccines and immunopathogenesis team in the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory/Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Roots of Success
To understand the success of Corbett, an African American who went on to earn her doctorate from the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill, Harmon explained that the Meyerhoff program enrolls students of diverse backgrounds and “great things are expected of them. We set the bar high, but reachable [with the sup-port of] UMBC faculty, ample resources and support from partners across campus, such as the Academic Success Center (ACS).”
Students can access tutoring at the ACS by appointment or on a walk-in basis. “Students who do well in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines work collaboratively between our faculty and tutoring, supplemental instruction and learning initiatives,” he said. “They don’t work in silos.”
A big part of what the Meyerhoff does is simply “make sure the students feel comfortable asking for help, because these students are often the very people who oth-ers think have all the answers,” Harmon said. “However, we know everyone needs support.”
So, Meyerhoff advisers help students learn to manage their time, engage their peers and work in high-functioning study groups. “That’s how we help them understand the best practices for undergraduate success,” he said.
Today, Corbett’s knowledge is used to interpret and direct information. “All told, I do the science,” she said. “I make sure that the scientific portfolio is organized while we address this issue, as well as others,” as she, too, works from home.
Corbett, who reports to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, oversees planning and experiments, analyzing data, writing manuscripts and writing patent applications – “the nitty gritty things” that need to get done every day.”
She said what led her to UMBC was coming from a large family. “UMBC offered what felt like a similar family environment. That’s also why I picked UNC Chapel Hill for graduate school,” she said. “They both offered a loving, supportive, loyal, trustworthy family atmosphere that you need in the science field.”
The cut-throat atmosphere that she’s noticed in some startup environments, for instance, don’t work for her. “I feel that it behooves an institution to [offer strong] support. We knew at UMBC that Freeman Hrabowski would be somewhat like a dad to us, even when he told us things that we didn’t want to hear.”
What she remembers most from her time at UMBC are the personal relationships, many of which are ongoing. For instance, she just left a care package at the home of a Meyerhoff friend who is quarantined due to the coronavirus.
She looked for that same environment after she graduated from UNC and I landed at NIH, which gave the first trial coronavirus vaccine on March 16, in collaboration with Moderna, a biotech company.
“We’re in Phase 1 of the program with two more phases to go. I am beyond encouraged that we will have a vaccine ready within 18 months,” she said. “When the virus came out in early January, we and NIH collaborators realized that this would be a global health problem.”
Such scenarios of success are exactly what UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski imagines when working with students.
“I cannot overstate how proud my colleagues and I are of UMBC alumna Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett,” said Hrabowski. “She is doing this life-saving work; she’s also changing the face of science. She is a dedicated mentor who actively inspires more young women, particularly women of color, to pursue science and medicine.”
Harmon seconded that thought and pointed out that, even when Corbett was in graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, she’s always remained connected to UMBC.
“She has a strong passion for mentoring,” he said. “She helps us interview candidates for the Meyerhoff Program and we have a recent alumna, Olubukola Abiona, who is working as a post baccalaureate trainee at NIH with Kizzmekia. So, she’s now training another UMBC grad for who’s preparing to pursue a biomedical science Ph.D.”